2022 Philippine Elections

[OPINION] Choose your democracy wisely

Carmel V. Abao
[OPINION] Choose your democracy wisely
'Voting wisely this May 2022 elections entails thinking critically about Philippine democracy – its past, present and future'

What is the best way to assess and choose candidates? This question must be taken seriously by every Filipino voter, especially now that the electoral campaign has officially begun and the May 2022 election is right around the corner. 

Bringing democracy back into the picture

In the absence of real political parties that are supposed to present the bases for choosing candidates, the task of “voting wisely” is more difficult. Real political parties are expected to exact accountability from their party members before, during, and after elections. The task of the voter thus is just to scrutinize the performance and trajectories of the political parties of candidates.  

Given that there is no real party competition to structure choices, we, Filipino voters, have to examine “everything” about the candidates: platform and messaging (especially priorities), character (integrity issues), track record in politics and governance, alliances, business interests, and personal background (educational attainment, family background, views on religion, gender, class, etc).   

And we need to examine “the walk” of these candidates, not just “the talk.” To borrow the words of actress Angelica Panganiban that have gone viral lately: Kilatising mabuti ang mga manliligaw (assess your suitors thoroughly),  halughugin ang biodata mula high school at college”(review their curriculum vitae from high school to college), alamin at tignan ang character references (evaluate character references), huwag magpapabudol at huwag sa magnanakaw (avoid scammers and thieves). 

In this piece, I present yet another angle that further operationalizes that notion of “voting wisely.” I argue that voters have to consider the political regime that the candidates are likely to create or uphold if elected into office,  i.e whether their rule will be democratic or not. I make the democracy discourse central because I think the Duterte government has been very successful in messing up our notions of democracy. We no longer seem to know what the requirements of a democracy are (e.g. extrajudicial killings as compatible with democracy?). Most importantly,  many no longer seem to care what the requirements of democracy are (e.g. nakakain ba yang demokrasya?). It is this apathy towards the presence/absence/benefits of democracy that we should guard against in this election.  

I present three options here: (i) a democracy that accepts authoritarianism, (ii) a democracy that rejects authoritarianism, and (iii) a democracy that rejects both authoritarianism and elite dominance. I also present my examination and analysis of what kind of democracy each of the (presidential) candidates represent. My analysis of the candidates could be wrong. But I will insist on this one assertion: we need to talk about democracy again.  

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Option 1:  A democracy that accepts authoritarianism 

This kind of democracy is obviously the “Duterte brand.” Despite the anti-democratic features of his regime,  President Rodrigo Duterte was able to generate people’s consent (which is central to a democracy). He generated consent institutionally through a supermajority in Congress and the repression of critics, and directly/individually through the creation of “diehard supporters.” Because President Duterte merely captured and did not dismantle institutions of representation and participation, the Philippines, under his watch, could not easily nor categorically be labelled as non-democratic.  

In political science, regimes that have both authoritarian and democratic features are often called either “semi-democratic” or “semi-authoritarian” or “hybrid” regimes. Such typology is often used to refer to East Asian democracies that do not necessarily follow the Western model of liberal democracy. Studies on these semi-democracies often revolve around examining Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia – all of which have strong bureaucracies that have enabled them to “assist capitalism” rather than “leave the market alone” (this is why they are sometimes called “developmental states” – where government, not the free market, directs the nation’s economic development).    

In these countries, governments are formed out of ruling parties and regimes are assessed based on the relative strength of ruling parties vis-à-vis the military and other state institutions. Despite having illiberal features, these regimes often allow some degree of independence of the press, protect certain (but not all) rights and liberties, and insist on the rule of law or citizen compliance of the law.  

Because the mixture of liberal and illiberal features in these regimes is integral to their societies (i.e. they do not seem to want to transition to a Western-type liberal democracy model), they are often considered “stable.” State institutions are still discernible, the business of governance is linked to meritocracy-based bureaucracies, and there are internal checks on government non-performance or violation of internal rules and policies.  

The Duterte brand is nowhere near this kind of hybrid regime. The Duterte regime merely captured state institutions for its own particularistic interests. It did not professionalize or mobilize institutions towards some national interest or development agenda. Rather, it just created a crisis (the drug war) and identified enemies (e.g. dilawan, drug addicts, communists, terrorists, imperialists) to consolidate people’s support. It created the perception of an “us” versus a “them.” Ironically, when a real crisis (COVID-19) hit the country, government’s incapacity to deal with crisis was revealed. The Philippines has been last on every list that has to do with COVID response or crisis resilience. To a very great extent, the “strongman rule” of Duterte turned out to be mostly rhetoric: he did not solve the drugs problem in six months, he did not jetski to Scarborough Shoal, he did not keep the promise that “by December 2020,” things will be “back to normal.” The Duterte administration is not about a successful experiment at strongman rule. It is about failed (fake?) promises and wasted political capital.  

This is why there has been no rhyme or reason to government’s problem-solving endeavors in the past six years. Even with the onslaught of a global pandemic, President Duterte continued with his predictably unpredictable ways. No rule of law. No internal checks. No clear purpose. Just successful emotional and (a)moral appeals to the people. This is also why the Duterte regime is known more as an “authoritarian populist” regime rather than a semi-authoritarian one.  

While the Bongbong Marcos (BBM)-Sara Duterte tandem vows “to move on from the past,” it clearly comes across as Duterte’s “successor” (i.e  the tandem is not likely to reverse most of Duterte’s pronouncements). This “Uni-team” is not likely to break away from being authoritarian populist. In my calculation, however, both Marcos Jr. and Duterte Jr. are likely to be more populist than authoritarian – especially if they win with a wide margin. Even today, their rhetoric is “unity” and I wouldn’t be surprised if they will exert effort to draw electoral opponents into their fold once they are in power. So, there will likely be changes but I don’t think they will ever be able to create a political-economic system anywhere near the semi-authoritarian regimes of the East Asian models. In those models, politics is not all patronage-based and governance is not all hit-and miss. Technocrats, more than politicians (and more than political families!), are given premium. 

One cannot move towards the “East Asian model” without rules, without collective purpose, and without mathematics. Like Rodrigo Duterte, BBM and Sara Duterte have declared oversimplistic promises and showed overrated achievements. They won’t be able to deliver even a stable semi-democracy.    

So, to those who believe BBM and Sara Duterte will bring the Philippines to the level or likes of Singapore or South Korea: huwag magpabudol. That’s not going to happen. Not with political dynasties or oligarchic family corporations as their main driver of economic activities and the main beneficiary of the fruits of economic activities.  

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Option 2: A democracy that rejects authoritarianism;
and Option 3: A democracy that rejects both authoritarianism and elite dominance

These two options have to be taken together because practically all of the other candidates have made claims espousing either one or both types of democracy.  

But first things first: which among the presidential candidates genuinely rejects authoritarianism?  

Having been allies of President Duterte’s governance and/or specific policies in the past, it is understandable that some quarters may consider Isko Moreno, Manny Pacquiao, and Ping Lacson to still be part of Option 1. This is a valid assertion especially for Isko Moreno who has repeatedly praised “the good things” that both President Duterte and the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos had done in their administrations. Yet, Moreno also distances himself from that past by offering himself as the “healing president.” This offer suggests an acknowledgment that even President Duterte had caused wounds that need healing.  

Manny Pacquiao has also been a clear Duterte ally in the past six years but his claim to being part of the opposition is more apparent than Moreno’s because he exposed corrupt practices of the Duterte administration. While this may have been mainly for election purposes, it nevertheless earned him a place as part of the “opposition.” Pacquiao visited Duterte once in Malacañang during the period of filing of candidacy but he has not budged from his claim of government corruption.  

Ping Lacson is a more complex character because he was not supportive of all of President Duterte’s policies and has positioned himself as an independent thinker and policy-maker. The alliance with Duterte was most visible only with Lacson’s support of the anti-terrorism law that was clearly weaponized against Duterte critics. Moreover,  Lacson’s background as an enabler of Martial Law as part of the Philippine Constabulary from 1971 to 1986 is hard to overlook. As long as there are Martial Law victims who are still alive, Lacson’s human rights record (and therefore, his propensity for authoritarian ways) will always be questioned. Despite this, however, Lacson’s dominant image is that of a statesman rather than a police officer. In recent interviews, he has also been very vocal of the Duterte government’s excesses and omissions.  

The two other candidates, Leni Robredo and Leody de Guzman, are obviously part of Option 2. Both were at the receiving end of Duterte’s authoritarianism. Robredo was ousted from the Duterte Cabinet very early on and all throughout the six years, she had to endure public criticisms of either being vindictive or incompetent – from Duterte himself and from Duterte’s supporters. De Guzman, meanwhile, represents non-institutional opposition to the excesses of the Duterte administration, especially in terms of the violation of human rights and workers’ rights.    

Leni Robredo initially received some criticism over her pronouncement and seeming support for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ECLAC), but said criticism didn’t stick because Robredo’s human rights record is spotless. Despite confusing policy declarations, everyone could see that she was/is no human rights violator. 

Regarding Option 3 – a democracy that rejects both authoritarianism and elite dominance: this is an ideological position that promotes the deepening of democracy, not just in politics but also in the economic arena. It carries with it a Marxist/Leftist critique of liberal democracy and economic liberalism. The Leody de Guzman-Walden Bello tandem is the main advocate of this position with their call for “systems change, not just regime change.”  

But is the De Guzman-Bello tandem the only advocate of systemic change? All the other candidates who belong to Option 2 (those who do not accept authoritarianism) have intimated at some systemic change. Leni Robredo for example has taken a strong stance against ending contractualization, which suggests a class bias. Panfilo Lacson has repeatedly lambasted the pork barrel system and the misuse of public funds. Isko Moreno talks about “building better.” And Manny Pacquiao has been making the pitch for the prioritization of mass, public transportation and has declared his opposition to the privatization of public utilities.  

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It is not clear, however, whether the candidates outside the De Guzman-Bello tandem will govern with a class (worker-proletariat) bias. Even Leni Robredo who has worked as an alternative lawyer for workers rights cannot just dismiss the reality that her party, the Liberal Party, was part of the political alliance that created more, not fewer, class divisions in society. The “failed EDSA democracy” is a reality – it is a democracy that has not benefitted the masses, but rather, has become a democracy dominated by economic and political elites.   

Despite that failed EDSA democracy, I think the De Guzman-Bello call for systems change is not gaining traction because it has been made without the backing of a unified class-based movement. Without this unity, the call comes across as weak – because if the various sections of the Left can’t agree on Leftist electoral appeals, how can it hope to generate support from outside of its ranks? 

The options for democracy presented here are my approximations of the type of democracy (or authoritarianism) that the presidential candidates for the May 2022 elections are likely to institute, if elected president. But these options are also for us, voters, to think about – for as long as we question the state of our democracy, we may be a step closer to being actually democratic.  

“Voting wisely” this May 2022 elections entails thinking critically about Philippine democracy – its past, present, and future.  

And who is my personal choice? Ideologically, I lean towards Option 3 as I am a firm believer that we need to develop a democracy that will benefit the many, not just the few. But this election, I choose the presidential candidate who clearly represents at least Option 2. Someone who has not only weathered the authoritarian, populist storm that is President Rodrigo Duterte (and the Marcoses!) but has remained calm – and democratic – through it all.  

Yes, that someone is a she– Rappler.com

Carmel V. Abao teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University.